A veteran FBI agent who wrote derogatory text messages about Donald Trump filed a lawsuit Tuesday charging that the bureau caved to “unrelenting pressure” from the president when it fired him.
The suit from Peter Strzok also alleges he was unfairly punished for expressing his political opinions, and that the Justice Department violated his privacy when it shared hundreds of his text messages with reporters.
“This campaign to publicly vilify Special Agent Strzok contributed to the FBI’s ultimate decision to unlawfully terminate him,” the lawsuit says, “as well as to frequent incidents of public and online harassment and threats of violence to Strzok and his family that began when the texts were first disclosed to the media and continue to this day.”
The complaint, which names as defendants Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Chris Wray, revisits a political drama that was seized on by conservative critics of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation as proof that the bureau was biased against Trump. It provides new details about the circumstances of Strzok’s firing and amounts to the latest defense of his reputation, coming months after a fiery congressional hearing in which he insisted that his personal views never influenced his work.
Multiple investigations are underway examining whether the FBI acted properly during the Russia investigation, and Strzok remains a frequent target of Trump’s scornful tweets. A Justice Department inspector general report focused on the early days of the Russia probe is expected to be released in the coming weeks.
Spokespeople for the FBI and the Justice Department declined to comment on Strzok’s lawsuit.
Strzok, a veteran counterintelligence agent who helped lead FBI investigations into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, was removed from Mueller’s team after the texts with FBI lawyer Lisa Page came to light. He was fired from the FBI last August.
The lawsuit seeks reinstatement to the FBI, back pay and a declaration that the government violated his rights.
Many of the texts, on FBI cell phones, were bitingly critical of Trump during his 2016 run for office. They were found by the department’s inspector general during its investigation of the FBI’s Clinton email probe. The watchdog office criticized both Strzok and Page, with whom he was having an affair, for their judgment in sending the messages but didn’t find that the Clinton email investigation was tainted by political bias.
In the lawsuit, Strzok attorney Aitan Goelman says the FBI deputy director who fired him was responding to “unrelenting pressure from President Trump and his political allies in Congress and the media.” That deputy, David Bowdich, overruled the recommendation of a disciplinary official that Strzok be merely demoted and suspended, and denied him the chance to appeal, the complaint says.
The FBI has said that Bowdich, as the FBI’s No. 2 official, had the authority to overrule disciplinary findings. Bowdich said at the time that Strzok’s “sustained pattern of bad judgment in the use of an FBI device” called into question decisions made during the Clinton email investigation and the early stages of the Russia probe, the lawsuit says.
The complaint also says the campaign to fire Strzok included “constant tweets and other disparaging statements” from Trump, as well as the president’s direct appeals to Wray and Barr’s predecessor as attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to fire Strzok.
In addition, the lawsuit says the administration discriminated against his viewpoint by firing him even though other government officials who have supported Trump in the workplace have kept their job.
It notes that the White House has not fired counselor Kellyanne Conway despite the determination that she violated the Hatch Act — a law that limits political activity by government workers — by disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity.
“The Trump administration has consistently tolerated and even encouraged partisan political speech by federal employees, as long as this speech praises President Trump and attacks his political adversaries,” the complaint contends.
The lawsuit also says the Justice Department set out to smear Strzok’s reputation and humiliate him when it disclosed nearly 400 text messages he had sent or received.
In the complaint, Strzok aims to explain some of the texts that have attracted the most negative attention, including one in which he told Page “we’ll stop” a Trump presidency.
Many conservatives and critics of the Russia investigation have interpreted the text as Strzok saying that he would work to prevent Trump from being elected, but the suit says the message was actually meant to reassure Page that the American people would not support a Trump candidacy.